New Clause 5 - Report

British Overseas Territories Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 6th December 2001.

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'Within 12 months of the commencement of this Act, and annually thereafter, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs shall lay a report before Parliament setting out—

(a) the number of British Overseas Territories Citizens taking up British Citizenship;

(b) the number of these taking up right of abode in the UK;

(c) the cost per applicant;'.—[Mr. Spring.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

With this we may discuss new clause 6—Annual report—

'The Secretary of State shall make an annual report to Parliament on the British overseas terrorities'.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk

I want to talk mainly about openness and transparency. We would all welcome news of the numbers of new British citizens as a result of the legislation. We have taken into account the Government's response in another place and have included information that we feel it would be possible for Her Majesty's Government to collate and make available. As yet, we do not know how many British overseas territories citizens will benefit from the legislation and how many will exercise their new rights to live in the United Kingdom. It would be appropriate for the House to be made aware of such figures under the new clause, so that we might monitor the procedures' effectiveness. I recognise that every citizen will automatically become a British citizen, but the number acquiring a British passport as confirmation of status would be an adequate indicator.

An annual report on progress would serve the vital functions of monitoring the effectiveness of procedures and the legislation and of keeping this very important issue on the agenda.

The Minister was kind enough to inform the House on Second Reading that the cost of applying for a passport would be a uniform £46 across the territories. We had concerns about that, so we welcomed the information. However, we should be updated at regular intervals, as costs tend to increase over the years and we must ensure that the price remains reasonable.

I welcome the Government's undertaking in another place to provide as much information as possible, but we must ensure that we are provided specifically with statistics. They will assist the House to build up an accurate picture of the viability and popularity of emigration from overseas territories and the success of this move forward in our partnership with them.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I am afraid that I cannot give the exact numbers that the hon. Member for West Suffolk requested, but it has been said in many places that 200,000 people will benefit from the Bill. It is worth reminding hon. Members, particularly those who have not been involved in previous debates on the subject, that 70 per cent. of the people under discussion enjoy a higher gross domestic product per head than we do. Therefore it is highly unlikely that we shall suddenly face a huge influx of people coming to live in this country, particularly given the difference between our climate and that of places such as the Cayman Islands.

As the hon. Gentleman said, new clauses 5 and 6 would commit the Government to producing and publishing annual progress reports. We shall, of course, want to monitor the implementation of the Bill, and some things that he asked us to do are fairly straightforward, such as publishing the number of people who apply for British passports. I expect that that will be self-financing, because the fee levied for issuing the passport will cover the cost.

The figures for registration and naturalisation will also be published. It will not be possible to provide figures for those who exercise their right of abode in the United Kingdom, because the Bill will create new British citizens who can come into the country on full British passports as freely as Committee members can. They will not be subject to any immigration controls.

As I said to the hon. Member for Windsor, there are many opportunities in this House and in the other place to discuss making a provision for an annual report that would cover the British overseas territories. Such a report goes beyond the scope of the Bill, and I hope that the hon. Member for West Suffolk will withdraw his new clause.

Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend Conservative, Windsor 11:15 am, 6th December 2001

You have been tolerant and patient with us this morning, Mr. Butterfill, as has the Minister.

The new clause is at the heart of what I tried to say on Second Reading. All of a sudden, we have opened the window and many people have suddenly become walking encyclopaedias on the British overseas territories. That will last only for a short time before the window slams shut again and we lose sight of the territories.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk is right. We need to know how the Act will work. We also need to be updated regularly on the constitutional arrangements that are being made in the territories. We need to know how the public administration training is going, what is happening in higher education, and about the airport or the new ship for the islands. We also need to know about citizens' health rights.

I was intrigued to hear about the European Union and whether those citizens will need residency to fill in E111 forms for health care when in Europe. There are all sorts of complications, which will no doubt be sorted out in offices in the territories. We are making provisions for British citizens and have a grave responsibility to them. They have no other formal voice in the British Government who retain an enormous amount of power over them.

If there were a way of asking about the Pitcairn Islands and its complications, I would do so. It has a curious system in which its legislative authority appears to be New Zealand, although its police operate at a high level from Kent. There are complicated issues that it would be nice to raise from time to time. The White Paper ''Partnership for Progress and Prosperity: Britain and the Overseas Territories'' was excellent. There could be an annual report to Parliament, which we could debate if necessary, so that such matters could be raised.

I also suggested that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs might want to consider such a report annually. The Public Administration Committee, on which I serve, has an appointment—once a year or more—with the ombudsman and a Cabinet Secretary to keep them in touch with where we are. I understand that there is an annual meeting in September in London of representatives of the territories, although I may be wrong.

I would be intrigued to know whether that meeting is held every year and always in London. If so, perhaps that would a good time for the Select Committee to plug into the system and have a sitting, or at least send a Clerk. There would then be a constant interchange. It is difficult, even in the age of the e-mail, to keep in touch with all the territories throughout the world.

Will the Minister consider whether there could be an annual report? He has, as always, been gracious about such matters, but I want to press him to make a commitment on this modest request.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. This is also my first Committee and I am pleased that there has been such consensus. So far, so good. My experience as a Minister has been brief and I am not immediately responsible for this subject. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is the immediate responsibility of my noble Friend Baroness Amos.

I have the impression that, far from being under-represented, the overseas territories are very well represented, not least by several hon. Members in the Committee. There are 200,000 people in those territories. On Second Reading, 12 or 15 hon. Members spoke with great expertise about issues ranging from the airport at St. Helena to the environmental impact of bird-lime in the Pitcairn Islands. My constituency in Exeter, with a population of 110,000, just has little me to represent it, but the residents of the overseas territories have many walking encyclopaedias, as they were described by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North. I do not think that the overseas territories need worry too much about their voice being heard.

As my hon. Friend said, representatives pay regular visits here. Next week, I am meeting a group of St. Helenians and my noble Friend in the Lords is meeting a delegation of Chagos islanders. There are always opportunities for hon. Members to secure debates on individual territories, or all of them, in Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall and for the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to scrutinise our work. Indeed, there may be an argument for the Committee to invite annual delegations to give evidence on how the new legislation is bedding in and other topics. The Foreign Office publishes an annual report on human rights, which includes references to the overseas territories. I hope that the hon. Member for West Suffolk is content that that is enough and that they have full representation in the House.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk

I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor in saying that the Minister has been unfailingly courteous and helpful during our proceedings. Although we will not press the matter further, I hope that efforts will be made to keep hon. Members informed about progress following the successful passage of the Bill. As he has reflected and we have noted, there is huge interest in and concern for the overseas territories, and it is important that the Bill's effect on citizenship is monitored and that we give the overseas territories a view on our relationship with them. I hope that we can get a commitment from the Minister and the Foreign Office on that, although it will not be as specific as we wanted.

Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend Conservative, Windsor

I do not wish to detain the Committee on the matter at this stage, but will the Minister reconsider before the Bill is considered on Report whether an annual report could be made to Parliament?

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk

I agree with my hon. Friend. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose at twenty-three minutes past Eleven o'clock.